Resurrection, The Key For Willis Earl Beal's 'Noctunes'
Seeking solace from battles with insomnia, record labels, homelessness, marriage and the strains of his new-found popularity, the ever-enigmatic Willis Earl Beal reflects to find form, patience and grace on 'Noctunes'.
Beal’s rise to fame reads more like a traveller’s tale than the conventional ‘small-town hero makes it big’ headlines that seem to glamorize other contemporary songwriters’ success stories: following a formal discharge from the US military on medical grounds, Willis Earl Beal was discovered by publication Found Magazine after a slew of homemade CD-R recordings and flyers with his name and number on began circulating the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
A cover feature and subsequent audition on the X-Factor later (he made it to boot camp but left the show after arriving drunk), Willis Earl Beal released the bitter-sweet 'Acousmatic Sorcery' on Hot Charity, an imprint of XL, taking a hauntingly sparse experimental approach to instrumentation and grounding it with striking gospel vocals and a thought-provoking analysis of existentialism and romance. Beal’s future seemed bright, with international television appearances and a sophomore release in the form of 'Nobody Knows' in 2013 garnering praise from a variety of publications seeming to herald the arrival of a new soul talent.
Sadly, here’s where things began to lapse. Beal’s erraticism, increasing elusiveness and desire to conceal his identity for public appearances was the first in a series of upsets that were ultimately summed up by a departure from Hot Charity and a self-release of his third album 'Experiments In Time' to mediocre reviews.
However now, Willis Earl Beal is back. The singer’s fourth album, a result of some down-time spent recording at his trailer back in Albuquerque has lead to a new-found serenity in Beal’s music. Marking a significant departure from his previous style, the cobwebs of Beal’s opinion dividing low-fi production techniques are shrugged off to give a sleek quality to the album.A stripping back of the wild hollers that his vocal style would often sporadically burst into during both his live performances and earlier recordings has left exposed the lovelorn fragility of Willis Earl Beal, and the result of 'Noctunes' is a transmission of twelve beautifully transcendental love songs which call out with the aching of a breaking heart from across a plain where affection and insomnia revolve around one another like the chasing of the desert sun and moon: “I know what we’ve been through / But I think I wanna start over with you,” Beal croons on "Start Over," perhaps 'Noctunes’
most characteristic track, before adorning his heartfelt bellows with a staggering falsetto, “I’m still holding on to you, baby / I think I wanna start over anew.”
For a man who calls himself “Nobody” and conceals his appearance with a black mask during performances, 'Noctunes' does well to adhere to the alienation that seems to encompass Willis Earl Beal. The album is suitably nocturnal, composed during spells of insomnia that plagued Beal as his relationship with his wife dwindled, and it appeals to the sanctity of the night to provide the peace of mind that he seeks. Songs are sleepy, but manage to just steer clear of sluggishness; fluttering string and synth arrangements are fleshed out with Beal’s distinctive soulful warbles which resonate with equally enough vitality and tenderness to create an omnipresent warmth in his delivery that seems to arrive from almost beyond the music itself.
There is a distinct absence of drums and only a few tracks are kept alive with their presence: the pitter-patter of Navajo-influenced beats on "Survive" pay tribute to the ambience of the Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico - a theme teased in the album’s artwork and an aesthetic that serves as the crux of 'Noctunes'; delicate percussive chipping and chiming decorates ‘Say The Words’ and ‘Love Is All Around’ like the glinting of the cosmos in the evening sky; and an alluring use of 80’s style synth pads inject groove into ‘Like A Box,’ which to existing W.E.B fans may come as the most startling transformation in the artist’s sound yet and provides an exciting break from the album’s narcoleptic stance.
For a ‘nobody,’ Willis Earl Beal taps into an inner tenderness that resonates throughout his latest record, striking a connection with the listener and providing a moment’s respite from the restlessness of day-to-day demons (“Turn your eye to the sky and remove all doubt / If you want to survive / ‘Cause they’ll eat you alive” – ‘Survive.’) With all the guile and sorcery of a drifting storyteller, Beal creates something truly special on 'Noctunes', channeling the universal themes of love, loss and endurance into his music.
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Words by Dylan Morin